Madras: More Than a Fabric, a Cultural Heritage
Updated: Jul 5, 2022
When I was in high school, my friends thought that I had lost my mind when I told them that I wished we could still wear our traditional madras dresses like women used to do in the 18th century.
Yes! I was probably crazy. These dresses were gorgeous but clearly not fit for 20th century young women. But do you know how much history this piece of fabric called madras carries? I don’t know why it did not get its own road like silk did, because this colorful fabric has been places, seen things, and is still around today to tell the tale. It is even making a successful comeback. It’s amazing how much I am still learning about this piece of fabric while preparing this post, despite the fact that I grew up seeing it everywhere in my daily life.
But first, what is madras? And why do you find it all over the Caribbean Islands?
I will not get into the technicalities here (or elsewhere since this is definitely not my area of expertise, and some of you probably know more than I do about weaving techniques). I will just say that madras is a hand-woven and light cotton fabric with squares, and that the process of making Madras designs requires the use of weaving tools such as plain weaves, dobbies or jacquard. Sorry, I promised, no technicalities! What you need to know is that it came from a city in India called Madras (short for Madraspatnam, now called Chennai, which I did not know).
Between slavery and colonialism, it made its way to us in the Caribbean while on its way to Europe via Africa.
Of course! No surprise there, since pretty much everything in the Caribbean culture was either brought with us from Africa or to us from the colonizer. (And of course, we also gave our own twist to how little was left from our less well-known ancestors, the Arawak and Caribbean indigenous populations.) I told you: lots of history in this little piece of fabric.
I call it a little piece of fabric because that’s how it was first used. Madras started in our Caribbean societies as a headwrap. It was first imposed by the slave owners: black women were forced to hide their bodies behind plain fabric and to hide their hair under a piece of cloth in order not to seduce the white men and to appease the jealousy of white women. In New Orleans (you didn’t think the United States didn’t play its part in all this, did you?), this rule was imposed via the Tignon Laws. Later, women would use the madras to enhance their plain dresses, bringing more color to their outfits (sound familiar, my dear Bwa Brilé friends?). It even reached the point where madras constituted a very sophisticated means of communication: in the French Antilles, the different "maré tèt" (head wraps) were an indication of your social and marital status.
*1-tip: I am available | 2-tips: heart taken, but you can still try | 3-tips : heart taken | 4-tips : there is room for whoever desires it | Tèt-chaudière : ceremonial hairstyle
Madras then moved further down on the dress, replacing the plain piece of cloth that adorned the hips, then becoming an essential part of the dress itself.
By the time I was growing up—in 1970s and 1980s (and now I hope that you are not good in math), all of this had disappeared and the madras dresses and coiffes (yet another word for headwrap) were only worn for specific festivals or during the défilé de carnaval (carnival parade; or mass, for my English-speaking Caribbean friends).
This all brings us back to my high school friends who were ready to drag me to Colson (the psychiatric hospital in Martinique) because I wanted to wear madras. Madras was still around in our houses then, but mainly for decoration purposes (table cloth, napkins, paper plates, etc.). By the 1990s it had become a staple in the households of our Caribbean diaspora in France (in the case of Martinique, Guadeloupe, Guyana, and Reunion) as well as in London and in the United States. Madras was a piece of cloth that made you feel like you were back home and put color and warmth in your household to help you forget about the grey and cold winters.
The madras was also (and still is) on widespread display in tourist shops.
But enough with the history already! What’s happening with madras today?
Well, good news: the madras fabric is making a comeback in everyday wear! Yeah! And not just in the French Caribbean. In 2017, the island of Montserrat held its first “Madrastique”, a fashion and design creation contest to celebrate the madras fabric. Models showed off creations in formal wear, resort wear, casual wear, and fantasy costumes. I did not find out if there were subsequent editions. If you are from Montserrat (or if you happen to know the answer), please leave me a message in the comments.
In December 2019, the U.S. Virgin Islands passed a bill to adopt its own national madras, specifically designed by a St. Croix textile designer. Yes, I forgot to tell you that some of the Caribbean countries have one specific madras that represents them. For instance, in the madras for Jamaica the green is predominant. Although the madras with yellow and red as the predominant colors is the one mostly used in Martinique, I do not think that we have one specific madras that represents us (maybe something to consider the day we get our own flag?). Most importantly, the comeback is not just on fashion runways or in nationalistic arenas. More and more people are putting madras back in their everyday wear simply because they want to. YouTube tutorials and workshops to learn how to properly wrap the madras are flourishing. Look below how proudly these young women from the Virgin Islands wear their "maré tèt!" And of course, you already know all about Bwa Brilé’s Madras collection for your earrings!
Talking about accessories, even this year’s coronavirus pandemic has helped put the madras in the forefront, with a high demand in madras masks. Once you have purchased your earrings—to find the perfect modern-day outfits to complement them or to get inspiration, you can check out all the wonderful other madras wear. Check out Le Catalogue de la Mode Madras for instance and then, why not, head to Madras Day in Paris (this year it was held on July the 11th!).
> For further reading
There is so much to say about my little piece of fabric that I have to stop. But if you want to know more, feel free to check the following websites or Facebook pages. These are just a few of the many pages that I have encountered while researching the subject:
And this one if you really want to dive deep into the subject. (Yes, with technicalities, and dates, and everything):
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